There are not many 16-year-olds far from home fending for themselves, but Matthew Smyth is an independent sort. He’s on a two year scholarship with Stevenage as he pursues his dream of a professional career in the beautiful game.
Son of well-known Ballinamallard United stalwart Mervyn Smyth, football was in Matthew’s DNA. He was five when he first started at mini-soccer, playing the whole way up through into the National League, into under 18s before making his reserve debut. Smyth acknowledges the role playing adult football at a young age played in his development, but an even bigger influence is his father, Mervyn.
“Yeah definitely, he’s been a big influence,” said Smyth. “All the international training is in Belfast and my Dad would bring up three times a week to that showed massive commitment.”
It’s a commitment and work ethic that is now hard-wired into Matthew Smyth. Even before leaving for England his routine was five nights of training a week with a game on Saturday. A repurposed midfielder from his early days with Ballinamallard, he’s flourishing now in the defence. Operating in the last line has highlighted his leadership characteristics and it’s little wonder then that he has been selected to captain Northern Ireland. The first time he was named captain came as something of a bolt from the blue.
“I was with the Northern Ireland under 16s and only back maybe two games because I was out with a back in jury for six months,” said Smyth. “We were away to Belgium and I found out in the changing room just before the game. The manager Dessie Curry was announcing the captain and he said it was me. I couldn’t believe it because it was only my second game back after six months out. I was shocked to be captain, but it was obviously a great moment for me.”
Smyth was selected as captain again for a game at under 17 level when Northern Ireland took on The Faroe Islands, Iceland and Wales in a UEFA development tournament. When the UEFA under 17 qualification tournament came around, he was captain for all three games against Portugal, Turkey and Slovenia. Smyth summarises the experience of that competition in Slovenia this September.
“We played Portugal in the first game and suffered a 3-0 defeat,” said Smyth. “Obviously Portugal were a good side, but we just didn’t turn up on the day. We played Turkey in the second game and were 3-0 up inside 16 minutes. They brought it back to 3-3 and we scored a last minute winner. That was an unbelievable feeling. Then we played Slovenia, the hosts, in the last game. We knew that we needed a win and they could have done with a draw. They got the draw [0-0], which meant they qualified there on the day.
But we found out at Halloween we’ve qualified as well as the best third place team. That takes us to the 2015 Euros.”
Away from international duty, it is down to the bread and butter of cutting his teeth in the professional game with Stevenage. It’s a huge step for a young man to be taking, but it’s a challenge his throwing himself into heart and soul.
“My parents are back home, my brothers are back home and I’m away living over here playing football every day,” said Smyth. “It’s weird, but I’ve definitely settled in to full-time football. It’s going well at the minute and I’m really enjoying it.”
“I’m here for two years on a scholarship. At the end of that they’ll have a choice to give me a pro contract. My aim is to get that pro contract, be it with Stevenage or whoever, and continue to play football as a career in the long run.”